Hit Number One
Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears
“There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you”
The first time Martin met Wendy was like travel. He visited another planet. She saw him off and held him when he returned.
Martin had never been to a warehouse party. He grew up in Oak Park, the first suburb west of Chicago, birthplace of Hemmingway, home to Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford. They owned one of two castles in town. Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and many of his projects were part of the street-scape. Hemmingway denounced Oak Park as a “town of wide lawns and narrow minds.”
She is asleep on the train. On my way to work, middle of the afternoon, I see a woman with black hair, child-like freckles, black sequined mini-skirt, black t-shirt. Joy printed on the front. Black torn spider-web stockings capped off by red sequined high-heel gym shoes. Her hair was scraggly, oily, stringy, shoulder length. The tip of a lock is stuck in the corner of her crusty mouth. I always find this hair in corner of mouth thing sexy. It’s like I suddenly have a reason to be. It’s a distress signal that I can answer. “Oh, you’ve got that little bit of hair just…here let me get that…just smooth it back. There that’s better. Now, what were you talk-” I was aware of none of these subtle associations.
I just understood the hair-in-mouth corner phenomenon as “I find you attractive”. I sat across from her. Her mouth was slightly open. Her shimmering red lips smeared up her left cheek. Her body was not tight and fit. It was dishevelled and lumpy, spilling over the edge of her skirt’s waistband. Or was that her black underwear band? Somehow she was everything I was looking for. She looked like an actor out of the Sid and Nancy movie but not like the real punks. We didn’t use the term goth in 1988 for people who like to wear black and paint their face white. New Wave. That’s what I would’ve called her. She opened her eyes as the train rumbled on a corner. She smacked her lips and glanced around the carriage.
Only three other people on the train with her: a man in a suit reading, a young African-American man bobbing his head to a walkman and occasionally singing a lyric aloud. Then there was this other guy who looked mixed: African and something, maybe Hispanic or Arabic. He was staring at her and smiling. She suddenly became aware of analysing people by their race and berated herself over it.
He spoke. “You look cool. You have a piece of hair in the corner of your mouth.”
She moved her hand to remove the offending strand. “No don’t. It looks cool,” he said nodding his head. He continued, “My names, Martin. I hope you don’t mind. I was watching you sleep.”
She ignores my request and puffs the moist tendril away from her mouth, leans forward and says in a loud whisper “Was I snoring?”
“And drooling.” I say.
“Farting as well.”
“Oh, sexy!” she sits back, combs her mop with her fingers and breathes out. “Phew! What a night. Where are we?”
“We’re almost to California.” I inform her.
“I was having the weirdest dream. Mmmm. Good thing you woke me up.”
“I didn’t. You woke up when the train changed tracks around a corner. Thank the train. Where are you supposed to get off?”
“Two stops. Ashland. Then catch a rotten bus and walk eight blocks. I’m feeling a little sick though.”
“Big night huh?”
“Yeah, some mansion in Oak Park. Freaky but fun. Some guy’s parents are in the Alps so…” all the blood leaves her face as she grabs her stomach “oh wow me and free alcohol do not mix. Alcohol bad Wendy. Alcohol- woah! I’ve got to get off this train.”
“So glad we’ve almost made it…” The young guy with walkman sings to his train window. “…So sad they had to fade it”
“Well you’re stop’s coming up,” I say ” Can you hold it till then?” I want to move and sit next to her, give her a hug, but I don’t know if that’s appropriate and I’m afraid she might vomit on me. I’m wearing my security guard uniform under my black leather motorcycle jacket. My prize possession. Covered in shiny steel zippers at odd angles. It’s the first thing I’ve ever saved up for, spent real money on. $270 dollars. Well, not saved up; took out a loan from my mom’s boyfriend Goghi and I’m paying him back every two weeks. I don’t want to mess up my jacket but I’m pretty sure it’s liquid resistant. I’m more concerned about showing up to work with my polyester blue pants covered in this woman’s stomach acid.
She says, “I’m fine now. It’s just- you know how you get a really bad cramp? Then something in your intestine moves down a bit and then it’s okay for a little while?”
“You mean you’ve got to write in your porcelain diary.”
She laughs. “No no ow- oh. Don’t say anything else funny. I can’t ohh oww ssss ohh it’s moving again. I can’t laugh and I shouldn’t laugh at high-school boy jokes. How old are you?”
“Twenty.” I didn’t want be anything with teen in it. “One. Twenty-one, I mean. I just turned twenty-one. I almost forgot.” I tell myself- You have to be legal drinking age to be having a conversation with this woman.
“Cool, when was you’re birthday?”
“Uh less than two weeks ago. October 30th.” That wasn’t a lie.
“Hey do you want to go to a party next weekend?” She asks. I- this is incredible!- I- did the lie get me over the line? I act casual.
“Yeah sure, where at?”
“My friend’s got this warehouse in Wicker Park. There’s a band and…”
“Hey look Ashland. This is your stop coming up. Have you got a pen? I’ll write it down on my-”
“No, but here’s the flyer. My number’s on the back. If you have any questions, call me.”
I take the little photocopy. It’s a picture of a wolfish looking mouse warming its hands over a campfire. It says, Jerome’s WERE-MOUSE WARMING. Saturday November 12. 8pm soft (not sharp) Bring a Fiend. I flip it over and read Wendy’s name and number. I look up just as the doors are opening.
She makes a phone shape with her hand next to her ear. She shouts out, “If you just want to talk.” as the doors close. I see the word Division on her back.
Wendy and I talk on the phone on the Thursday before the were-mouse warming. We talk for two hours and she tries to convince me to meet her at a bar called Berlin. I of course can’t do this because I am an under-age kid in America who has been getting smashed illegally since he was 14 on those occasions when the forbidden halls of drink have been illuminated by a bright shining avenue of binge:
- Standing around the corner from the liquor store, me and two friends wait for our prey
“Hey can you buy us some beers?”
- At a party: “ooh spiked punch” guzzle guzzle guzzle “oooh I don’t feel so hot” kneel before the toilet.
- “Are you sure your mom doesn’t keep track of how much of this stuff goes missing?”
- “Aw man I tried drinking Polo cologne last night. That stuff gets you so wasted.”
The law makes it gold and teens are dazzled prospectors. So drinking with Wendy would have to wait until the party's wicked guzzling.
Meantime I found out that Wendy did work for a gallery and they paid her. Sounded like a good job. A year later, when I was looking for work, a gallery asked me if I could paint. I said, “of course”, and found myself painting the gallery walls a fresh cream colour for $15 an hour. They fired me pretty quickly. I had no idea what I was doing. People paid Wendy to put whatever she wanted onto canvass. I didn’t understand how this worked. When I asked a high-school friend what he was going to do after he left school, he said he was going to be an artist. I said you can’t just be an artist. You have to get some kind of a job.
“That’s what my job will be. Why what do you want to be?”
I was surprised he was even asking. I said, “President, of course.”
“Martin you’re not going to be the president.” He snickered and kept drawing in his notebook.
“Anybody can be president, Rob. Not everybody makes it, but that’s what everybody wants to be.”
“No Martin not everybody wants to be president. Listen.” Rob put his pen down. “Unless you’re going to be a Republican, which I highly doubt, Democrats have always been from the South. And I hate to break it to you Martin, but you’re black. So unless there’s a plague and most of us whiteys die. You are not gonna be president. Think about it. You’re not even popular at school.” Rob Powell moved away in my sophomore year. I heard he went on to be a sculptor, but Wendy was the first person I’d ever made friends with who worked as an artist. Seemed like a pretty good life. She was drunk most of the time.
Saturday rolled around. I changed my shift so I got off work at 8. I wanted to head back home and change first. I wasn’t going to look like an idiot carrying a guard’s uniform around with me. We weren’t the kind of guards that use guns or batons. We just had walkie talkies. We checked to make sure doors were locked and helped evacuate the building during bomb threats. Other than that, the toughest part of my job was staying awake or finding a secure spot to sneak a nap- couch, women’s toilet, 43rd floor.
From work to home was about 40 minutes. I changed my clothes, ate a slice of Giordanos thick crust and told my mom I was doing another shift- midnight to eight.
She said, “Martin don’t push yourself so hard. Why are you doing a double?”
“It’s fine.” I moaned thinking “I shouldn’t have to be doing this. I’m nineteen now. I can do whatever I want.” But I didn’t feel like having the- “as long as I pay the bills and you live under my roof”- debate right now.
I ring Wendy. “Hey Wendy it’s me. I’m heading out now. I’ll-“
“Sorry, who is this?” She says.
“It’s me Martin.”
“Oh sorry, Wendy went to some party she said to say she’d see you there.”
Damn it’s her roommate. “When did she go?”
“Three hours ago?”
I got on the train at about 11:15. I checked the map before I left home. There were three ways I could get to the party:
ROUTE 1. DOWNTOWN (2 trains + 8 blocks): SLOW / SAFE
I could take the train all the way downtown and then catch another train to North Avenue and Damen, the heart of Wicker Park. But the party on Western and Augusta would still be an eight block walk.
ROUTE 2 - ASHLAND (1 train + 1 bus + 8 blocks): NOT SLOW / NOT SAFE
Get off at Ashland. Take a bus through a dangerous neighbourhood. And still walk eight blocks.
ROUTE 3 - CALIFORNIA (1 train+ 4 block run + 8 block walk):
QUICK / INSANE
Get off at California Avenue in the heart of Roslyn Gardens – the projects – and run four blocks to Western where the neighbourhood was safer and… walk eight blocks.
I chose California. It was getting late. I wouldn’t get there until 12:30. Wendy would be waiting for me. We approached California. Last stop in the wild, wild Westside. When I stood up on the train, the few late night city adventurers on their way home or to a more reasonable source of partying looked at me. Some shook their heads as if to say, “You don’t want to get off here, man,” and others smirked. Like, “Who is this fool?”
Two children, boy and girl around seven or eight, got up giggling. They played tag through the doors and out onto the platform. I watched the train leave. I swear someone in my train capsule got up and said, “We should have stopped him.” Leaves and newspaper sucked into the El’s wake, the crackle of electric tracks… a little wind whistle… and silence. Where did those creepy little kinder run off to?
I flipped my punk motorcycle jacket collar up and sunk my head down into my shoulders. Coming down the platform, I realised I’d made a mistake. My environment had taken a hallucinogen. Buildings morphed into melted hulks. Half crumbled edifices made grotesque silhouettes. There were riots here in the '60s, when King got shot. No one had bothered to fix it up.
On ground level, I looked down the narrow side street to my left. Those kids were dancing around a fire-hydrant. To my right, half a block down, hunched body bags stood warming their hands around a trash can fire. All thoughts of running disappeared. I wanted to sneak my way between dark doorways, but I didn’t because I was more afraid of who might be hiding in the hollow patches. I chose to walk like a carefree fool down the middle of the street. A beat was pumping in my head. I couldn’t make it out. It made my feet charge to a rhythm. Hands in pockets. Head down.
I saw four people ahead spread across the street, coming toward me. It’s almost midnight. What are these people? Marching in formation, a steady wall of four bodies. They will block my path. I have no defence. I put my right hand inside my jacket to pretend like I have a gun. I jerk my head around, take on a limp, look at the ground.
I start mumbling to myself. “I kill somebody. Don’t mess with me, man. I kill somebody.” I swing my left hand in a wild shake. “Better get up off of me, dammit!” I drag my limp foot. “Don’t touch me man, I’ll shoot yo…” The group were a coin toss away. I chanced a look. It was a family all holding hands in a row. Little girl’s hand connected to daddy’s hand connected to mama’s hand connected to son’s.
I didn’t want them to think I was crazy. They might have been my only safety around here. With still enough distance, I turn completely straight, smile and ask: “Excuse me, do you know the time?”
The father barks, “What? What you say, man?”
I jump, then give another timid try. “I just wanted to know if you knew the time?”
“Naw, we don’t know shit, leave us alone,” he threatens.
“Okay. Thanks. Have a good night.”
No reply. They were past me now. I couldn’t blame them. I did say I would kill somebody.
I walk down Lake St. underneath the El tracks. The beat in my head is coming back. At an intersection above me, the tracks make a cross. The road dips down. The sidewalk is at eye level and is separated from the road by a railing. The lyrics come to me. I hum. When the road has vallied so deep that the footpath on either side is higher than my head, I hear someone running behind me. (Holly came from out on the island) I turn. It’s a teenager, 14 maybe 15. He’s up on the concrete walk. He’s running toward me. He looks scared. (In the back room she was everybody’s darling) I think he must be running away from something and just wanting some company (but she never lost her head) so I say, “Hey, how’s it going?” as I look back to the road before me.
He says, “Not bad. How you doing?” (Even when she was giving head)
I turn back to the kid, saying, “Oh, pretty good, I’m just…”
I notice he has his hand down his pants. (She said hey babe) Before I can eek out another word, he pulls a gun from his jeans. “Freeze fo’ I shoot yo ass.” (Take a walk on the wild side)
He jumps on to the railing and down into the street. He socks me in the jaw and shouts “Take off your –”
I throw my motorcycle jacket on the ground.
He hits me again. “What else you got, pussy? What else you got, punk?”
“That’s it man”, I say. “I gave you everything I have. That coat and seven dollars fifty in the inside pocket.” My hands are in the air as the kid pops me in the mouth again.
“Naw, bullshit. You gonna gimme everything. Come on, what else you got?”
“Nothing. That’s it. I’m just going to my friend’s house for a party, that’s all. I don’t have anything else.”
Before I realise it, another kid is there. He’s got a railroad spike filed down to a sharp point. He’s making light jabs at my stomach. Not yet breaking through my cotton shirt.
“Please guys I just want – my friends are gonna be –”
A white Volkswagen Rabbit pulls up. The gun mouth is pushed into my ribs. My shirt is lifted and the rusty spike pushes my abdomen. They’re going to put me in that car and I’m dead. That’s it. The boy with the gun puts his arm around me and turns us away from the road. The white Rabbit slows and keeps driving past us. I look over my shoulder and watch my heart jump out of my chest suctioning itself to the back window of that car.
My hope drives away. Don’t mind us kids, we’ll just step out of the street like we were playing ball.
I plead for my life. “Please, you guys, just let me go. I gave you everything I have. Please, I just want to go to my friend’s house. They’re gonna be looking for me. I just know they’ll be driving around looking for me. Please I –”
The boy tightens his arm around my shoulder, puts the gun up to my head and says, “I’m your friend now, and your last friend. So, shut up.”
I gulp. And gulp again, trying to swallow my throat. It’s stuck in a tight ball. The two boys walk me toward a little side street. They toss my jacket back to a third person standing below the stairs under the platform, an older man who must have been keeping watch the whole time.
They push me into a dirt trough on the side of the road and take turns.
“Take off your clothes.” Kick in the thigh
I wasn’t consciously saying, “No.”
“Get down on your knees.” Punch in the cheek.
But I must have been in shock.
“We gonna” – fist in the other cheek – “tear yo ass up.” I stood there, staring at them until the white Volkswagen screeched backward down the street. Shit. They’re going to put me in that car, cut me up, and bury me.
“Is you okay?”
I woke up to someone repeating, “Is you okay?” I could only see weeds, a Snickers wrapper, pieces of green glass; and a bleached white paper scrap that read: iceberg. I was lying on my stomach, face to the side, in a ditch. I eased into a crouch. The voice was coming from the Rabbit across the road.
“Is you okay?”
“Are you with them?” I asked, confused.
“Naw, we came back to help you out. Is you okay?”
I looked around. The three killers were gone. How long had I been out for? Where were they? I touched my face. Sore, but no blood.
“Yeah, I think I’m okay.”
“Alright then, if you okay. We’ll get going then.” A woman spoke from the passenger seat, leaning over the drivers lap.
“No, wait”, I said, looking around me in panic. “I… I know those guys are just waiting until you leave. They’re probably just around the corner. Please, can you give me a lift to Western Avenue?”
I’m sitting in the back seat of this car, looking out the window.
“Whaddem niggas do? They kick you in the mouth? Why you rubbin ya jaw like that? We we we saw ol’ boy toss the jacket back, see. First time we came around, we thought you all was friends, cuz ol’ boy put the arm around you, you know? But then we saw ol’ boy toss the jacket back. We knew what was up. What you doing out here? This ain’t yo hood, right? Why you rubbing ya jaw like that? Niggas kick you in the mouth?
Her amphetamine fuelled interrogation slowly registered. I turned to look at this woman in the passenger seat. Wild scarecrow ‘fro and skinny broomstick body. She has four, maybe five teeth. She’s turned in her seat, shooting her questions at me.
“No, they didn’t kick me in the mouth,” I say, rubbing my cheek. “They punched me a few times”
On the back seat next to me is a forty-something man with a potbelly, in a leather vest, no shirt. He’s drinking a can of – and has a tattoo of – Budweiser, the King of Beers on his shoulder. He’s wearing cut-off jeans, cut-off so high I can see his balls.
Please, let the driver look normal. I catch his face in the rear-view. It looks like raw meat, cut into strips and pommelled into paste. I sink in my seat. We’ve been driving for longer than it takes to get to Western. Where are we? Where are we going? What frying pan have I jumped out of? The driver slams on the brake.
He turns. He doesn’t look happy. He gives me a stern “Yo, man. This is it.”
“What? What is it?” I ask looking around bewildered. “What do you mean this is it?”
“I don’t understand. What are you going to do to me?”
“Nothing. Come on, man. This is it. Western Avenue. You said you wanted to go to Western, right? This it.”
“Oh, this is it. This is it. Right. This is it. This is Western. Oh, my god! You saved my life. I don’t believe it, you saved my goddam life.”
The driver rolls his eyes a little and lets out a heavy breath. “Okay, okay, man. Just get out the god damn car.”
“Oh, yeah, right… I… right.” I step out the rear driver’s side door. The driver gets out too. I shake his hand. I want to hug him. Collapse in his arms. Fall to my knees and embrace his thighs. I keep shaking his hand. “Thank you so much. Oh, my god. Thank you so much. You saved my freakin’ life man. Holy shit! You saved my life.”
“It’s okay, man. Maybe you do the same for me one day,” he says.
“Yeah right. I mean, yes. I will. Yes I. Right.”
“Alright, man. Take it easy.” He climbs back into his Rabbit. The three saviours screech down Western and disappear back into Roslyn Gardens.
I start walking to the party, still six blocks away. The whole way I talk to myself “They took my jacket. I can’t believe they took my jacket. I paid two hundred and seventy bucks for that jacket. Oh, man. Goghi is gonna kill me.” I punch the air. “If I ever see anyone wearing that jacket on the train. Those guys. Dammit. Probably sold it already. I’ll kill them. I don’t care. Anyone wearing my jacket. I paid two hundred and seventy bucks. I’m making instalments, but that was my favourite…”
I kept this private banter up all the way to the party. I hardly stopped when I got into the house.
“Hey, Wendy. They took my jacket.”
“What? What are you talking about? It’s almost one o’clock. Why didn’t you call me? What happened to you? Shit, you look really pale. Are you all right?”
“Oh, man. I got mugged.”
“What? Let’s call the police! What happened?”
“Oh just a couple of teenagers. What’s the point? Who knows where they are now. They probably sold my jacket.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just the jacket.”
“Martin, it’s your- more than. You’re in shock. Are you? You cheek is all- Are you okay? Forget the jacket. You’ll get another one, big deal.”
“No, it was the best one. I’m never going to find another. If I ever see anyone wearing it, I swear.”
“Here, come on, sit down. Have a drink. Stop talking about your jacket. Tell me what happened.”
After telling her what I could, and downing two vodkas, I could hardly stand up. I could hear a sound like helicopter blades spinning slow and soft in my head. I curled up and sank into her lap.
When I woke up at her place in the morning, she had put something on my eyes. I couldn’t open them.
“Wendy, what did you do? What is this stuff on my eyes?”
She said, “Frank, I didn’t do anything, your eyes crusted over. You’ve been crying since you fell asleep.”
I cried for another hour. Wendy walked me to the bus stop. She sat with me to wait. Rob Powell walking past, stops, "Frank? Wow you look like shit."
"True", I said.
"How are you?
"I was mugged in the Robert Taylor's last night."
"You were uh what were you...in the projects?" Rob's friend comes out Arturo's Burritos.
Rob says to his friend, "Hey this is a guy I went to school with, he just got mugged in the projects. What the hell. Are you okay?'
"Yeah, I'm heading home to Oak Park." I didn't want him to think I was a beat up and bus hopping the on the shady side of the street."
Rob's friend is pulling on his sleeve. He doesn't get introduced, I think of him as burrito friend. I don't introduce Wendy.
"Hey umm we've gotta get going?", Rob says.
Wendy says she has to make some paintings. The three of them leave. We were only together for a week, that time.